Sexual slavery in prison is suit's focus

Plaintiff, ex-inmate, is described in court as `property' of penitentiary gang

September 25, 2005|By New York Times News Service

WICHITA FALLS, TEXAS // Roderick Johnson, a former inmate at the Allred Unit, a violent prison a few miles from here, belonged to a gang called the Gangster Disciples, but not in the usual sense, the gang's former No. 2 man explained Wednesday in federal court.

"Was Mr. Johnson considered a member of the Gangster Disciples?" one of Johnson's lawyers asked the witness, whose name was withheld by the court because his testimony could subject him to retaliation.

"No," said the witness, a soft-spoken, perfectly bald and quite imposing black man in a prison uniform and shackles.

"What was he considered?" asked the lawyer, Jeffrey Monks.

"Property," came the reply.

That meant, the witness continued, that gang members could rape Johnson at will. They could, he said, also rent him out for sex, and they did, daily. A purchased rape, the witness said, cost $3 to $7. Johnson says the abuse went on for 18 months.

Johnson, who was in Allred for probation violations after a burglary conviction, has sued seven prison officials there for violating the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The officials, the suit says, failed to protect him and took sadistic pleasure in his victimization. Johnson was released in 2003.

His lawsuit, filed in 2002, has drawn national attention to the issue of sexual slavery in prisons. Testimony last week corroborated aspects of his account and opened a window onto a world in which, Johnson and other prisoners said, sexual slavery at the hands of prison gangs is common.

Lawyers for the defendants do not deny that prison rape is a real and serious problem. But they say that Johnson made up the story of his victimization. and that, in any event, officials did all the law required to protect him in an inherently dangerous environment.

Some of the sex was consensual, lawyers for the officials say, pointing to seemingly affectionate letters that Johnson wrote to men he has accused of raping him. A letter to another prisoner discussed the money Johnson hoped to win in the lawsuit.

Johnson, 37, is a gay black man with a gentle manner. He is represented by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many people in this medium-size city near the Oklahoma border still have raw feelings about the civil liberties union, which won a federal lawsuit in 2000 that forced the local library to put two picture books for children about gay men and lesbians, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, back in the children's section.

The jury in Johnson's case, which includes two alternates, is made up of six white women, seven white men and a black man. They listened attentively and took notes as Richard E. Wathen, an assistant warden, testified that there was nothing in Johnson's seven written pleas for help that warranted moving him to what prison officials call safekeeping, a housing unit reserved for vulnerable gay men, former gang members and convicted police officers.

"I believe that we did the right thing then, and I would make the same decision today," Wathen testified Wednesday. "There has to be some extreme threat before we put an offender in safekeeping."

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